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Who should Biden appoint? Drug policy leaders offer plenty of options

December 7, 2020

Joe Biden won’t be sworn in as the nation’s 46th president until January 20th, but he’s already deep into the process of naming his administration’s nominees for cabinet-level positions.

Political insiders rightfully make much of such appointments, as they offer the clearest indication to date of how the incoming president plans to approach a particular issue.

Biden’s attorney general, and leaders of the DEA and ONDCP, will set and carry out federal drug policies. His nominees really matter.

This will be especially true when it comes time to nominate new heads of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), because—as has been extensively reported—Biden’s record on the drug war is long and terrible.

From green lighting civil asset forfeiture to incentivizing mass incarceration to cheerleading mandatory minimums and the militarization of the police, Biden’s been a driving force behind America’s disastrous approach to drug policy for more than four decades.

Biden has since apologized for many of these policies, and has lately indicated that he’s changed his views significantly enough to prioritize a public health approach to the issue as president.

Leafly reached out to a broad range of leaders in the drug policy reform community and asked them to offer the incoming Biden administration their advice. We’d also advise reviewing the Drug Policy Alliance’s official set of recommendations for the Biden-Harris administration’s first 100 days.

Jason Ortiz, president, Minority Cannabis Business Association

President-elect Biden knows all too well that the war on drugs has had devastating consequences on communities of color. His appointments should reflect a clear understanding that a new approach is needed.

DEA Director: Shaleen Title

ONDCP Director: Dr. Carl Hart

Ortiz suggested these immediate actions for a Biden-Harris administration:

1. Appoint Massachusetts Cannabis Commissioner Shaleen Title to head the DEA and allow her to staff a newly created Office of Cannabis Equity that would end the war on cannabis and ensure the implementation of a regulated system is grounded in undoing the damage done by the war on drugs. Shaleen is a proven and qualified leader, currently serving as Cannabis Commissioner for the state of Massachusetts, and has drafted and implemented numerous cannabis laws including model equity centric cannabis bills. She would ground the office in addressing the harms to society rather than the one size fits all hammer of mass incarceration. 

2. Instruct the US Attorney General’s office to issue a new memo stating the federal government will not interfere with state legal cannabis operations, and will also refrain from intervening in interstate commerce between legal cannabis programs. 

3. Deschedule cannabis completely.

4. Work with House Banking Committee Chair Maxine Waters to pass the SAFE Banking Act and work with House Small Business Committee Chair Nydia Velázquez to open all SBA 8(a) programs and loans to qualified equity-owned cannabis businesses.

5. Allow the ONDCP and other agencies full access and opportunity to study all drugs, and make that research available for public use and discussion. The ensuing expansion of research opportunities should be funded with an emphasis on recruiting researchers from disproportionately impacted communities into the highest levels of academia.  

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Dr. Peter Grinspoon, board member, Doctors for Cannabis Regulation

To head the DEA: Dr. Carl Hart. Dr. Hart has a thorough scientific understanding of the risks and benefits of drugs of use and misuse. He also understands the widespread and generational damage from our catastrophic War on Drugs. He can begin to transition the DEA from an institution that merely ruins lives, and suppresses cannabis research, to one that is helpful.

For head of the ONDCP:  Sarah Wakeman, M.D. Dr. Wakeman has been one of the most consistently intelligent and compassionate voices on the opioid epidemic, and has done a phenomenal job as director of the Substance Use Disorders Initiative at Massachusetts General Hospital, pioneering new treatment models and research. She also has been a strong voice against the harms of prohibition and racial injustice. 

Overall, the new administration needs to recognize that legalizing cannabis is a win-win-win situation: financial benefits, health benefits, social justice benefits.

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Maritza Perez, national affairs director, Drug Policy Alliance

In the past, the Drug Policy Alliance has supported the closure of ONDCP and the abolition of the DEA. We believe both agencies have been mismanaged and help escalate the failed war on drugs. Nonetheless, it’s likely these agencies will continue to exist at least into the immediate future.

We think ONDCP should promote evidence-based drug policies grounded in science and public health. We believe its national drug budget should prioritize harm reduction, treatment, and recovery, while deprioritizing enforcement and supply side strategies that perpetuate mass incarceration. 

For the DEA, the individual appointed to head the agency should commit to stopping the persecution of pain physicians and patients.

The agency head should also take steps to get the DEA out of the way of provision of Medication Assisted Treatment like methadone and bupenorphine, allow research with marijuana and other substances to go forward, apply brakes on scheduling of new drugs, work to find alternatives to class-wide scheduling, and shift DEA’s enforcement focus to only large-scale importers of illicit drugs and kingpins.

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Clark Neily, criminal justice policy, Cato Institute

Honestly, I can’t think of anyone I would want to see as head of DEA or ONDCP who seems likely to take the job. That said, I’d love to see Diane Goldstein or Neill Franklin of Law Enforcement Action Partnership in the mix.

More generally, my Cato colleagues and I would encourage the new administration to consider someone outside of law enforcement circles such as a public health expert, a member of Congress committed to drug policy reform, or someone else who will send the signal that ONDCP is a willing participant in the move toward drug policy reform, rather than a bureaucratic behemoth stuck in the 1990s.

As for drug/cannabis policy, we remain unabashedly in favor of complete legalization. The utter futility of the drug war, together with the pitiless brutality with which it has been waged, make this an easy call.

Short of that, however—and more within the realm of the plausible—we strongly endorse immediate de-scheduling of cannabis at the federal level and expungement of marijuana-related convictions. 

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Morgan Fox, media director, National Cannabis Industry Association

ONDCP should be dismantled. It is and always has been a propaganda machine that is constrained by mandate not to consider alternatives to the criminal justice paradigm for drug “control” and has consistently failed in its stated mission by every conceivable metric. If they must find someone to lead this agency, I hope it is a smart, compassionate, open-minded person who is well-versed in harm reduction and economics.

For head of DEA, I’d personally nominate Diane Goldstein or Neill Franklin, both of Law Enforcement Action Partnership.

Diane and Neill have extensive law enforcement experience, but as directors of LEAP, they also understand the failures of the War on Drugs, the harms that it has caused countless people, and the ways it has been used to target marginalized communities. They both have the tools and wisdom to help change how we enforce drugs laws in this country for the better.

Chris Lindsey, government relations director, Marijuana Policy Project

When it comes to the ONDCP, we think the office should focus on the deadly opioid crisis that continues to ravage communities. It should not spend time or resources interfering with state medical or adult-use regulatory cannabis programs.

At the Department of Justice, we think a large component of the attorney general’s role should be to look at policing in the United States and consider ways to build trust with the public and reduce disproportionate policing of communities of color. Marijuana drug enforcement has been a major instrument of abuse and should no longer be used to arrest people who consume it.

We want an attorney general who will restore the guidance in the Cole Memo, and who appreciates the need for a banking solution for the cannabis industry.

Montana, South Dakota, Arizona, New Jersey and Mississippi will soon roll out new cannabis programs under the DOJ’s watch, with more states likely to follow next year. We hope the DOJ will show support for state regulatory programs overseeing cannabis activity, rather than conflict with voter and administration directives.

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Diane Goldstein, board chair, Law Enforcement Action Partnership

The Biden administration must view drug criminalization as a human rights problem and prioritize public health solutions.

I would suggest that both the DEA and ONDCP endorse the federal MORE Act. This bill would begin to repair the damage caused by decades of marijuana enforcement by decriminalizing marijuana at the federal level and allowing the states to set their own policies.

The ONDCP needs to put its resources to use promoting harm reduction and fact-based drug education rather than reminding everyone that drugs are dangerous. We know drugs are risky; that’s why the people who use them need to understand how to do so safely and have the option to enter treatment when ready.

Both the DEA and ONDCP need to put their effort behind evidence-based harm reduction options such as syringe access programs, medication-assisted treatment, and overdose prevention centers.

Rachel Wissner, interim executive director, Students for Sensible Drug Policy

The Biden-Harris administration needs to listen to what American voters across party lines are saying about prohibition.

Oregon voted to decriminalize all drugs. Adult use and medical marijuana legalization passed in every state where legalization was on the ballot this past election, including states that went to Donald Trump. The draconian drug war policies that Joe Biden has championed throughout his career are a failure and America knows this.

Biden promised to be a president to all Americans no matter which political party they support, so he should listen to the bipartisan consensus that it is time for marijuana prohibition to end and that drug use needs to be treated as a public health issue and not a criminal one. 

David Bienenstock's Bio Image
David Bienenstock

Veteran cannabis journalist David Bienenstock is the author of "How to Smoke Pot (Properly): A Highbrow Guide to Getting High" (2016 - Penguin/Random House), and the co-host and co-creator of the podcast "Great Moments in Weed History with Abdullah and Bean." Follow him on Twitter @pot_handbook.

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